After about a year of trying to get into the original content business, Newsbreak is unofficially starting over.
On September 28, the mobile news app, which claims a monthly audience of 45 million users, announced it had hired Xana O’Neill, who had previously overseen Snapchat’s partnerships with news publishers, as its head of original content.
O’Neill’s job, Newsbreak CEO Jeff Zheng said in a press release, will be to “deliver informative and timely local information to our audiences, particularly in areas of the country where local newsrooms have closed and a new generation of trusted writers and journalists are needed to fill those voids.”
She will also be taking over an endeavor where little is set in stone. While Newsbreak’s creator program has nearly 3,000 participants spread out across almost all 50 states, with its most successful creators generating as much as $10,000 per month in revenue, “almost everything related to our current creator program is now in review or actively being revised,” O’Neill said in an email.
In theory, a successful creator program at Newsbreak would rely on and validate playbooks that other media platforms have already written. After years of licensing existing content from studios, Netflix’s brand and business are defined largely by its original shows and movies; several of the world’s most popular social platforms, from TikTok to Snapchat to Pinterest, have invested vast sums to support and directly compensate people that create content for their platforms.
A sustainable program could also help solve one of the journalism world’s thorniest challenges. As local news has struggled to adapt to digital, local news has simply vanished from many communities, with neither the news nor the reporting talent to bring it back. Recently, many companies have tried to bolster reporting ranks by enticing non-professional journalists to cover their local communities; indeed, O’Neill was working at a startup called Nillium focused on that very task before she joined Newsbreak.
“More and more journalists are striking out on their own and we want to provide an opportunity for them (and for subject-matter experts) to find their footing on NewsBreak,” O’Neill wrote. “We are increasingly appealing to local reporters who want to cover their communities but don’t necessarily have followings large enough to be successful on other platforms.”
But Newsbreak’s fitful effort to get an original content program in gear highlights the challenges of trying to get news out of untrained writers. Its efforts have also put the local news publishers that provide most of Newsbreak’s content on edge, in some cases strengthening their conviction that, as a partner, Newsbreak ought to be kept at arm’s length.
“Keep my traffic internal and build my own content — that’s the natural progression for these aggregator systems,” said Dominick Miserandino, the North American CEO of AniView and the former CEO of Inquisitr. “We’ve evolved through this before. And every time this system works, publishers get screwed.”
Rapidly changing priorities
In the fall of 2020, Newsbreak’s original content aspirations got off to a buzzy start among freelancers, thanks to an offer that few other platforms or outlets could top: Guaranteed minimum payments of $1,000 per month for those who qualified.
At the time, Newsbreak was asking for content that might complement the hard news it was aggregating from other outlets, and it had no problems taking content that had already been published elsewhere, a boon to writers who had been trying to eke out income using other platforms including Medium. Many quickly uploaded dozens of pieces that had already been published elsewhere on the internet.
That quickly changed. By the spring of 2021, Newsbreak wanted news from writers’ local communities instead, which it would rate using a ten-point scale, called a CV score, with higher-rated content getting surfaced more and its writers getting paid more. The CV score took several things into account, including how localized, differentiated and well-written the content was.
Before long, Newsbreak changed again, discarding the scoring system and asking for local features built using original reporting, which it would either accept or reject.
This kind of iteration and experimentation has become a way of life in Silicon Valley, but it frustrated many program participants, who said they had trouble figuring out what to expect.
“What you get paid depends on what they want,” said Stacey Doud, a freelance journalist who joined Newsbreak’s creator program in 2020. “Over the years, I’ve learned what the newspaper editors in my town want. But with Newsbreak, next month they might say, ‘We expect this [instead].’”
A harder deal
Newsbreak also made it harder for writers to monetize their content. By early summer, Newsbreak had begun taking away minimum revenue guarantees in favor of a system where creators were compensated based on how many views their content got.
At first, writers and video creators had guaranteed minimum payments for every article or video that Newsbreak accepted, with the ability to generate more depending on how many people saw a given piece of content.
That extra money was determined using a variable system that depends on a number of factors, including whether the audience read the story in Newsbreak’s app or on the web. Today, the minimum payments are gone for writers, though some video creators still get guaranteed payments.
New creators need to provide free labor before they can start getting paid too. Today, a writer must acquire a minimum of 100 followers on Newsbreak’s platform and publish a minimum of 10 stories before they can start making money.
Each article requires significant work. Per guidelines that Newsbreak laid out this spring, articles must be 250 words (though Newsbreak recommends they run more than 600), made up of original reporting rather than aggregation, and feature either original images or images that are freely available to use.
Contributors have no way to pitch articles ahead of time, meaning they must complete stories and submit them for review. There are no kill fees. Creators looking for guidance about what kinds of content to produce can use a tool in Newsbreak’s creator dashboard which recommends stories that it thinks will do well on the platform. O’Neill said Newsbreak is hiring more people with editorial backgrounds, which “potentially opens the door to new types of infrastructure,” but would not provide further details.
The shift to performance-focused compensation has had a mixed response among Newsbreak creators so far. Those producing in-demand content in large markets see a glass half-full: Jon Barr, who makes video content about life in New York City, said his overall compensation went down when Newsbreak eliminated monthly minimum payments, but he sees upside because views of his content have been climbing as the year has gone on, and he is bullish on his long-term prospects.
By comparison, Doud, who mostly covers the suburbs of the Dallas metropolitan area, sees less promise. After Newsbreak stopped offering minimum payments, Doud said she went from earning around $300 per month from Newsbreak to a small fraction of that; in August, a month when she filed four stories, each running close to 1,000 words and containing original photographs, Doud said she earned less than $6.
O’Neill said those kinds of drops were not the norm among program participants. But a pageview-based compensation model could present significant challenges for any creator who isn’t located in or near a sufficiently large market. A feature Doud wrote recently about the first Black man to serve as a police officer in Grand Prairie, TX, which accumulated 15,000 pageviews, generated $10, Doud said.
Today, Newsbreak’s original content creators generate a “small, but meaningful percentage” of its overall impressions, and one that is growing fast.
The local news publishers that provide the majority of those impressions are watching the development of Newsbreak’s creator program warily. For most local news publishers, Newsbreak regularly provides its the third-largest source of referral traffic, in some cases, delivering more referrals than the fourth, fifth, and sixth-biggest sources combined.
Many are loath to give that up, though they also say they expected a program like this one to eventually start eating into those referrals.
“It seems like this natural life cycle,” said an executive at one local news publisher that publishes content on Newsbreak, who asked not to be identified while discussing a sensitive business partnership. “You can only be a renter of content for so long. Plus, we’re [local publishers] all throwing paywalls up.”
Natural life cycle or not, that same source said it was “pretty surprising” when they realized that a former reporter at one of their papers was now producing stories for Newsbreak. “I thought, ‘They must be really doubling down on this.’”
A cactus in a desert?
How suitable a replacement a creator program might be for local news, even in its currently diminished state, is unclear. In the abstract, Newsbreak’s local focus and distribution muscle provide an excellent starting point for lots of experiments in local news, especially in places where there isn’t any local news to consume.
“This could be a solution for news deserts,” said Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION Pubs, a group that supports small, digital local news operations.
Among LION Pubs members, Krewson said, Newsbreak is a divisive topic of conversation. Because many LIONs are quite small, the amount of revenue that Newsbreak sends their way is significant.
But the kinds of stories Newsbreak’s algorithm favors gives Krewson, and his organization’s members, pause.
“I don’t love an algorithm that heavily weighs ‘if it bleeds, it leads’-type stories,” Krewson said, noting that some of his members have told him they’re considering investing in more local crime coverage, simply because Newsbreak’s algorithm tends to favor it.
Creators have detected those preferences too. Bebe Nicholson, who stopped writing for Newsbreak in September, said she noticed that true crime pieces she submitted to the platform performed much better than the kinds of stories that Newsbreak’s reps told her to produce, such as recaps of community board meetings. She stopped writing for Newsbreak after the platform took away her minimum revenue guarantees.
“If they reward more garbage, I’d almost rather not see news deserts filled with news landfill,” Krewson said.
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